Teaching our boys about consent and respect from an early age

In the Steubenville rape trials, the social and digital media trail proved that many boys were complicit in the rapes of Jane Doe–not just the two who were found guilty. Chillingly, these boys seem like they could be anyone’s son. As a result, today, many parents are asking: How can I raise my boy the right way–to become a young man who will neither rape nor be a casual bystander to rape?

It’s an important question to ask, but a difficult one to answer. The Steubenville boys’ families likely thought they were doing a great job raising their sons. But something is wrong with our society: girls are so sexualized and dehumanized by our culture that unless it is directly and regularly addressed at home, boys can easily internalize the attitude that girls are sub-human–sex objects, rather than respectable subjects.  And as the Steubenville case shows, once this attitude is internalized, boys think it’s not raping girls that is the problem, but rather getting caught. Consider even the judge’s words, which according to an AP report betrayed this kind of perspective:

In sentencing the boys, Lipps urged parents and others “to have discussions about how you talk to your friends, how you record things on the social media so prevalent today and how you conduct yourself when drinking is put upon you by your friends.”

Talk about being tone-deaf! As the mother of two sons, this is not my take-away from the case. The issue is not how the Steubenville rapists and their peers recorded their criminal actions on social media and therefore were caught, found guilty, and sentenced for their crimes. It’s that they raped in the first place.

Even CNN committed a major gaffe in their reporting on the sentencing, focusing not on the victim’s vindication and the possible outcomes for her, but rather on how difficult it was to watch the young rapists’ lives falling apart. According to The Huffington Post’s report on CNN’s coverage,

The effects of the rape on the victim seemed to be an afterthought: “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.”

The victim shouldn’t be an afterthought in the media coverage. Her vindication despite our broken culture of rape, her prognosis for a recovery from her trauma, and the possible consequences she and her family may face in their small town as they move forward should be central to the coverage.


With a culture that has such a messed-up attitude towards rape that even the judge and CNN are making major missteps, how do we answer the question posed earlier? How do we raise our boys into young men who will neither rape nor be casual bystanders to rape–who understand both that “no means no” and, more importantly, that consent requires an enthusiastic “yes”?

The answer is to begin teaching boys about two concepts–consent and respect–from an early age, in age-appropriate ways.

For example, my four-year-old son loves to hug and kiss his friends. He is sweet and affectionate, and when he first sees a friend or when it’s time to say goodbye, he wants nothing more but to wrap his arms around that friend and give him or her a big kiss.

Sometimes, his friends reciprocate, but sometimes, they clearly don’t want the physical contact. So, since about the time when he turned four years old, and he seemed old enough to understand, we’ve told him that he needs to ask his friends for permission first. We taught him to ask, “Can I give you a hug and a kiss?” We’ve also told him he needs to respect their answers, even if it’s disappointing, and I’m glad to see that this is now his usual approach. He gets their consent.

Then, there’s the matter of respect. When my son was three and a half, he became interested in wearing nail polish on his toenails and fingernails after seeing me get a summertime mani-pedi. I agreed to paint his nails, but before sending him off to preschool, I prepared him for the possibility of pushback from his friends or even his teachers. “Some people at school might not like your nails,” I warned him. “But you like them, right?”

Admiring his shiny blue nail polish, he told me, “I really do!”

“So,” I coached him, “if anybody says they don’t like your fingernails, you tell them: ‘It’s MY body!’ Because it’s your body, and you get to decide what happens to it. No one else does. Can we practice? I will pretend to be another kid who doesn’t like your nails, and you can tell me, ‘It’s MY body!’ Okay?”


A few practice scenarios later, and he was great at saying, “It’s MY body!” as a confident response to comments that disrespected his right to make decisions about his own body.

This was a great lesson for him to learn, because a few months later, when we set the rule that he needs to ask his friends for permission before hugging and kissing them, this helped us to foster an empathetic perspective. We were able to explain: “It’s HIS [or HER] body, and he [or she] doesn’t want you to hug and kiss right now. So you have to respect his [or her] wishes.”

All this is helpful in the present. I’m glad my preschooler has a basic, age-appropriate understanding of respect and consent, even if he doesn’t know those words yet. Everything we do now paves the way for future conversations, and I know that as he approaches adolescence, it will be easier for us to discuss consent and respect with him.

Since the broader culture gives such terribly mixed messages to our boys, I want to make it clear: consent and respect are not options. They’re necessities.

23 Comments on “Teaching our boys about consent and respect from an early age

  1. Following up regarding teaching children to not become rapists, one thing I have been trying to do with my children (I have a 3 year old girl and a 5 year old boy) is teach them that “no” means “no” including for me. So, for example, every parent enjoys a good tickle session with their children–for me if one of my children says “no” or “stop” or the like, I immediately stop (sometimes they then say “wait–don’t stop,” but they see that I took their requests seriously). My hope is that as I respect their requests to “stop” they will likewise learn to respect when people ask them to stop.

  2. We just read Your Body Belongs to You to the kids where I work. I highly recommend it!

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  4. I agree teach young boys about respecting girls and women. And as they get older tell them of the Steubenville rapists and their peers and about the legal consequences of violating a girls’ or women’s body. Tell the best and safest idea is to save all sexual activity for marriage.

    • I agree, but I think we need to impress on them all aspects and consequences of sex, make sure they are well-educated about it all around and comfortable asking about it if they have questions…abstinence-only education has been proven to actually drive higher rates of teen pregnancy, because it tends to mean that kids aren’t taught all the details and mechanics and what healthy sexual relationships /should/ be like, and why it’s worth waiting until they’re both physically and emotionally ready. Giving them all the information that we can tends to be what keeps things like that from happening. Well-informed kids make smarter, better-educated and wise decisions.

      • I agree on educating the young. I am not advocating no sex before marriage, but only pointing out that waiting for marriage greatly reduces your risk of being guilty of sexual assault. I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job of making my point. Put another way, using different subject matter, if a person never drinks, it is impossible for that person to ever be arrested for drunk driving. I’m not trying to say pre martial sex is analogous to drunk driving, but if one never puts themselves in a sexual situation, it does make arrest for sexual assault impossible.

        Having sex with another person is not required to survive as it is that we need to eat and be able to rest daily. Raging hormones can be dealt with in other ways that do not require another human present. Again, I’m not against young people having sex before marriage. But only to educate them that there are other options. I do not encourage one way or the other. I think it is good for not just young people, but all of us to have as many options as possible.

        • Ahh no worries, thank you for explaining! Hmm I see what you’re saying, but I wonder if that isn’t….hm. I will have to think about that one! It’s a good point, anyway. 🙂

        • I think that it is important to acknowledge that consent is also required in a marriage. Marriage does not transfer the ownership or control of either partner’s body to the other (although historically the wife was the husband’s property – I hope we’re beyond that now, but in many instances we are not).

          It is also difficult to control whether or not you are in a “sexual situation.” The media, and culture at large, sexualize women (and men!) to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to find a situation where someone else may not be viewing you as a sexual object, irrespective of your own wishes. Girls, women, boys and men have the right to dress as they like, attend parties, socialize or even just be asleep in their own beds without becoming a sexual object for someone else. The perpetrator, not the victim, is responsible for the rape or assault.

          Let’s also remember that rape is most often an act of violence and control, not of “sex.” This is as true of the Steubenville case as any other. So being in a “sexual” situation is not the cause of rape, because rape is an expression of violence and control, not of sex.

          • “I think that it is important to acknowledge that consent is also required in a marriage. Marriage does not transfer the ownership or control of either partner’s body to the other (although historically the wife was the husband’s property – I hope we’re beyond that now, but in many instances we are not)”

            Agreed. But I think you’d agree many more rapes happen outside of marriage.
            I agree with you on the Steubenville rape also. Although rape is a violent assault and not sex, there is sexual tension any time mainly young st8 men and young st8 women are together. And their ability to make good judgement is greatly impaired by alcohol or other drug use.

            • There is sexual tension between any people who find each other mutually attractive, straight or gay.

              Grampmk, you express yourself well and respectfully, but you fall in to the usage of cultural stereotypes and assumptions without even realizing it. You make the comments off-handedly, such as the marriage comment (it’s how you said it, not just what you meant), and this one about “st8” men and women, and sexual tension. Lust and “sexual tension” does not ever drive a rape. It did not in Steubenville (the situation did not cause the rape, just gave the two young men an opportunity, and encouragement from those around them), it doesn’t on a date rape, and especially not in a violent assualt. It happens to men, by other men (both gay and straight men) and by women. It happens to women by men and other women. Most of what we hear of is a man raping a woman, but estimates put the other categories as being as much as 15-25% of actual rape cases (only about 1-3% of male rape cases even get reported, it is believed).

              Now, I’m guessing you understand most of the stereotypes about rape, rapists, and rape victims, since you present yourself well, and know how messed up they are, but there are a great many assumptions about orientation and gender out there that are just about as silly.

            • You’d be surprised. Here are some links that you can use to become more informed about marital rape (as part of a larger problem of spousal abuse):

              Click to access SexualAssault.pdf

              “Marital rape accounts for 25% of all rapes”

              “…marital rape has to be understood in the context of an abusive relationship, that is, in the context of emotional and possibly physical abuse.”

              “While society sometimes perpetuates the myth that women are the property of their male partners, or that it’s a woman’s “duty” to provide sex to her partner, the emotional reality is that- Rape is Rape.”

              It is also important to recognize that gays and lesbians are not immune to sexual assault, so your “str8” men/women comment is not accurate:

              In addition, members of the LGBT community are often targeted for rape by straight people (usually men) as “punishment” or a “cure” for their homosexuality.

              It would be more helpful in the cause of ending rape and violence if we acknowledged that “sex” is the least of the problems, and that violence and lack of respect for others is the primary problem.

              • ““Marital rape accounts for 25% of all rapes”

                Therefore 75% outside of marriage. I made my point

            • I have a comment awaiting moderation (because it contains links to resources about marital rape and rape in the LGBT community). In essence it says that marital rape accounts for 25% of rape – not an insignificant amount, and that rape within the LGBT community and against members of the LGBT community are also significant problems of violence (not “sex” or “hormones”).

              For us to honestly discuss the problem of rape, we need to place the responsibility squarely where it belongs: the rapist. Not clothing, not “sex,” not hormones, not parties, not dating, not previous sexual history. The rapist has the power not to rape. We need to educate our young men and boys about rape and teach them not to rape.

              • “For us to honestly discuss the problem of rape, we need to place the responsibility squarely where it belongs: the rapist. Not clothing, not “sex,” not hormones, not parties, not dating, not previous sexual history. The rapist has the power not to rape. We need to educate our young men and boys about rape and teach them not to rape.”

                I agree completely, but alcohol use has got to part of the conversation. For anyone not to acknowledge excessive drinking is not a a problem in our society would make me believe that only people employed in the alcohol industry or alcoholics arguing against this.

  5. “There is sexual tension between any people who find each other mutually attractive, straight or gay.”

    I agree and in my statement I did say “mainly” between st8 men and women, not exclusively. I also said rape is NOT sex. My point that everyone seems to ignore is alcohol. And no I’m not campaigning to reinstate the 18th amendment. I always give my oldest granddaughter a bottle of wine for her birthday since she turned 21. But alcohol use is very prominent in most violent crimes, not just sexual assault and everyone refuses to acknowledge this 900 pound gorilla in the room.

    So again I am in agreement with the problems of the rape culture and the rape stats. I only want the acknowledgement of the big part alcohol plays. Sober people make better choices than drunk people do. That is fact is beyond dispute.

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  9. I’m curious.. what WAS the reaction from classmates and teachers to your son’s nails? Does he still wear nail color?

    • Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a response! I think he said his teachers liked it. He is five now and still wears nail polish sometimes, and recently he said a girl at his new school told him nail polish is for girls. I asked what he thought of that and he just shrugged–apparently it didn’t bother him!

      • That has been pretty much my experience too – not much of a reaction, and the vast majority of people who comment, offer compliments. The few who express concern, generally say “I think it’s cool… but aren’t you worried about what others will think about you?” I tell them “If someone’s going to make judgements about me – based on a few drops of paint – then their opinion isn’t worth worrying about!”

        If my son was in your son’s shoes, my biggest concern would be for the judgements of his teachers. Not that they would shun or embarrass him, but that they would interpret his doing something THEY SEE AS “girly”, as defining him as a “transgender student” – they’ve been trained (and in California, legislatively mandated..) to support boys who do “girl things” by accepting them as transgender girls. But to me, the whole “boy things” vs. “girl things” gender paradigm is built on sexism – and imposing (or in the case of teachers, “guiding” a student to accept..) a gender label, is enforcing the underlying sexism.

        So, I would tell my son’s teachers, “Don’t use my child’s nail color to label, judge, or impose your standards on them. Instead, RESPECT my child’s right to be their own unique, individual self. If nail color is OK for anyone to wear, it’s OK for everyone to wear – whether they say ‘I feel like I am a girl’ OR ‘I feel like I am a boy’. If you would support a girl who says ‘girls can do anything boys can do’ – without expecting that girl to identify as a ‘transgender boy’… then you should support a boy who says ‘boys can do anything girls can do’, without expecting that boy to identify as a ‘transgender girl’ “.

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